Comptes rendusReviews

Molloy, Andrew and Tom Urbaniak (eds). Company Houses, Company Towns: Hertitage and Conservation. (Sydney, NS: 2016, Cape Breton University Press. Pp. 260. ISBN 978-1-77206-049-2.)

  • Emma Lang

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  • Emma Lang
    Memorial University of Newfoundland

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Company Houses, Company Towns: Heritage and Conservation edited by Andrew Molloy and Tom Urbaniak (2016) consists of seven essays exploring the complex and often emotionally charged issues around the evolution of towns that were built for a single industrial or cultural purpose. The sites explored are located in five provinces from Ontario to Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Yukon. With the exception of Tom Urbaniak’s chapter on the changing cultural landscape of Kaszuby, Ontario, all the communities discussed were built to service industrial development where no town had existed before or, in the case of Wabana on Bell Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, where the new town came to supplant the original community. Each essay takes a different approach to examining the preservation and future of these communities and the chapters are held together by the authors’ strong conviction of the value of not just the communities themselves, but of the benefits that can be gained by learning how they have evolved and worked to preserve their unique heritage.

Richard MacKinnon’s typology of company housing in Cape Breton, Gail Weir’s discussion of the importance of company housing in understanding the mining heritage of Bell Island and Barbara Hogan et al.’s chapter on the changing form of the mining communities around Keno Hill, Yukon, focus on the connection between community and the built environment in company towns. All three emphasize a need to preserve these domestic and community spaces as monuments to the working-class history of Canada, but also to facilitate a greater understanding of the complex relationship between industrial work and domestic life, and the culture that developed from that complex relationship within these spaces. Andrew Molloy and Tom Urbaniak’s case study of the redevelopment of one company house in Glace Bay, Cape Breton takes the goals of preservation presented by Weir and MacKinnon and combines them with the current needs of a struggling community. As in the chapters by Hogan et al., Weir and MacKinnon, Molloy and Urbaniak emphasize the negative impact that economic downturns in company towns have had on the ability of communities to preserve the built environment for non-heritage focused or tourism-based uses and how this, in turn, has made economic revitalization of these towns more difficult. Alex Forbes’ chapter on the history and legacy of the founder of Marysville, New Brunswick and Luci K. Morisset and Jessica Mace’s discussion of the cultural evolution of the community of Arvida, Quebec both examine how the culture associated with company towns evolves as they are amalgamated into larger cities and the industrial past begins to fade from the collective memory, even as the physical legacy of those industries is preserved. Also looking at the cultural evolution of a community is Tom Urbaniak’s examination of whose culture is and should be highlighted in Kaszuby, Ontario, a settlement whose original raison d’être was the celebration of Polish heritage.

The towns presented show a range of geographic settings across Canada and, while the majority of the communities discussed were developed in relation to extraction-based industries, they are far from monolithic. However, the volume would have benefited from locating these case studies in the broader global discussion around the preservation of industrial and planned communities. Contrasting examples, such as the rapid gentrification that occurred in Lowell, Massachusetts in the early 2000s compared to the economic struggles of its neighbour Lawrence during the same period, demonstrate how the issues facing Marysville, Cape Breton and Bell Island are part of trends in a region that extends across the American-Canadian border. The complicated relationship between company towns where mitigation of environmental damage must take place while a community struggles to survive or preserve its legacy, such as those described by Hogan et al, is one that is facing an increasing number of towns around the globe. These range from the prominent, such as Pripyat – the now abandoned community built in conjunction with the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant – to the many communities created to service open pit mining across South America, as well as many towns across the Canadian North.

The great strength of this volume is the diversity of approaches presented for looking at the questions of why and how these communities can and should be preserved even after their industries depart. These approaches include (1) scholarship that emphasizes building on the existing physical layouts of towns that originally promoted walkability for practical purposes, but now can provide benefits to local residents and facilitate economic growth (Weir, Molloy and Urbaniak, Morisset and Mace); (2) the environmental lessons that can be learned from how these towns were developed (Barbara Hogan et al.); and (3) the potential for tourism development based on the unique histories of these communities (Urbaniak, Weir). By including essays that provide both practical guidance for preservation and adaptive reuse of heritage structures (MacKinnon, Molloy and Urbaniak), the volume situates itself as a jumping off point for both further academic research and the important community conversations about the intersection between the built environment and culture, as well as the importance of preserving company towns.